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Marketer Quite Contrary: The Importance of Contrarian Thinking in Marketing

November 05, 2020


Marketer Quite Contrary: The Importance of Contrarian Thinking in Marketing

There’s a certain comfort for us in consensus. If everyone agrees something is a good idea, then it must be a good idea, right?

This thinking is often quite pervasive in marketing circles, even if we don’t recognize it right away. We can see it in so many different forms: when we ask for numbers, when we say “this is how we’ve always done things,” or even “we do this because it works.”

But recently, there’s been some rethinking of status quos and consensus. After all, a desire for consensus is what gives rise to the phenomenon of groupthink. That's when we end up sitting in an echo chamber, nodding our heads and agreeing because we don’t want to rock the boat. It leads us to this, “What were they thinking?!” moments that seem so obvious to our customers and outside observers.

There’s a concept that’s common in finance called “contrarian thinking.” As it turns out, it could have a lot of use for us as Marketers.

Bucking Trends and Going Our Own Ways

So, what is contrarian thinking? In essence, it’s deciding that just because everyone thinks something is a good idea, we’re not going to do it.

Now, that’s often a difficult position to take. It's especially tough when we’re in board rooms with higher ups who are set in their ways or want to point to the numbers.

Consensus isn’t necessarily wrong, and numbers don’t necessarily lie. Content marketing might work. The numbers might prove SEO is super important to our new digital strategies. People may agree that digital marketing is the best way forward, or that there’s a particular way to “do” SEO so we achieve results.

After all, there’s an algorithm, and it works in a particular way. If you plug in all the right factors, you achieve results. Simple, right?

But here’s the problem. Even when something does work—like, say, SEO and Google’s algorithm—everyone else is doing the same thing.

That’s a problem for Marketers. We all design our ads the same way, because the numbers say this type of ad gets the most engagement. We all do SEO the same way, so we’re all neck-in-neck for the top spot on Google.

Contrarian thinking asks us to ditch the consensus to do things differently. It’s thinking outside the box, it’s taking risks, and it definitely sets us apart from the rest of the crowd.

Getting Away from the Familiar and Taking Risks

Now, one reason Marketers don’t do this more often is that we’re always being called on to justify what we’re doing. We have to show the numbers. We have to justify our ad campaigns to get the budget funding we need.

So, if the board room is convinced that SEO must be done a very particular way, then us saying, “Well, what if we did something different?” won’t get us very far.

Yet it’s what we need. SEO is a great example right now. It’s often tough to rank for certain keywords, because we’re all doing the same thing. Domino’s and Pizza Hut and Pizza Pizza all want to rank #1 for “pizza” and “pizza near me.” So they all optimize their websites following the exact same playbook.

That leaves it in Google’s hands to decide who “wins” the top spot. When we all do the exact same thing, none of us is any “better” than the other. Google’s decisions on who to award the top spot to can be arbitrary. Who gets the click might depend less on how good your SEO is or how effectively you spent your budget, and more on who’s doing the search. A Gino’s Pizza fan isn’t going to click Pizza Pizza, Pizza Hut, or Domino’s.

SEO is a good example for another reason. Nobody actually knows exactly how Google’s algorithm works. We know a few factors for sure, and then we guess at the rest. We know they rank us on 200+ factors, which have changed over time.

So, do any of us know how to do SEO “right”? Sure, there’s some common ideas and “best practices.” But if no one actually knows the formula, nobody can sit down and say, “This is exactly how you get your content to rank.”

We’re all kind of guessing, taking some educated stabs in the dark and seeing what sticks.

So, why do we have to do things the way everyone else says we should be doing it? What if we went out on a limb and tried something, well, a little bit different?

It’s risky, sure. There’s a good chance our gamble could backfire and our site gets blacklisted for doing something Google disapproves of. There’s also a chance that we might find something that gives us a competitive edge.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Brands must do a balancing act between being familiar and being innovative. If we’re too innovative, we’re going to alienate our customers. Too much change too often may risk making them feel unsettled or overwhelmed. They may not be able to get a clear understanding of what our brand does.

There’s also a chance we might innovate in the wrong direction. Think about New Coke. Coke thought that customers wanted something different from their product.

Yet being too familiar can also be a problem. If there’s never anything new or exciting—if it’s always same ol’, same ol’—why would our customers check in with us?

Our website example works here. If we never post new content, a customer might check in a few times to see if we’ve posted anything. Over time, they stop checking. Their visits become more infrequent until they forget about us altogether.

If we’re always hawking the same thing, then they’ll ignore us eventually. They may even start to get a little contemptuous: “They’re so boring. They never do anything new or exciting.”

Now, as I said, we walk a fine line here. When a customer comes to the grocery store, they want to buy their favorite brands—names they know and trust. They’re going to grab Tostitos chips and salsa because that’s why they always buy. They’re going to buy Kraft Dinner, because that’s what they always buy.

They want the familiarity of these products. They don’t want to walk in one day and discover that Kraft has completely replaced KD with some bizarre new spicy jalapeno version of the product. That’s not going to fly with most people. You’ll get a few who are curious, but you’ll get more people who want “the old version” back. (New Coke comes to mind again.)

If we’re Kraft, we don’t want to get too crazy. But we also want to give people a reason to be excited about our brand. Like I said, there are some people who would try spicy jalapeno KD! But they want to be able to pick up the regular stuff too, and then they say, “Hey, I’ll give this one a shot.”

The same is true in our marketing campaigns. A familiar logo and slogan can give people a sense of comfort and trust. But they can also become tired over time or outdated. In turn, our customers begin to mock our slogans or our ads.

This isn’t always a problem—sometimes, our customers parody us or pick up our slogan in good nature. But think of the GEICO commercials: “I just saved money on my car insurance!” That whole campaign ended up etched into our culture, often being parodied itself.

At that point, it stopped being effective and it was time to think of something else.

Why Getting Outside the Box Works

Being contrary—even if it goes against what we “know” is right, conventional wisdom in our industry—works, many times because it gives us a competitive edge. Like the SEO example: if we’re doing the exact same thing as our competitors, how do we get ahead?

We have to be willing, at some point, to take some risks, to put it on the line—and to innovate. To do something different that will make our customers and our would-be customers sit up and take note.

And that applies to almost everything in our organizations. What are we doing differently? What are we doing that no one else is doing? That no one else even wants to consider doing because it doesn’t line up with what we think we know?

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to get the edge, to make ourselves stand out from our competitors. When we all look the same, when we all say the same things, when we all offer the same things, then none of us are getting anywhere.

So being contrary—using the conventional wisdom as a jumping off point, a way to think of how to approach our marketing, our brands, even our organizations differently—could be just what we need to do.

And it stands to reason: we should never do things “just because” or “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” We need to think about why we’re doing things—and then how we could do things in a new and exciting way.

So start with the why!


Just to inspire!

I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing is inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

I would also be grateful if you shared this or any of the articles I have written to inspire others.

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